How the picnic came to British blankets

It starts with a window of good weather in an otherwise unremarkable summer.

Then out comes a sliced loaf, a selection of sandwich fillings and a bit of cling film. Add a bottle of lemonade, a few bags of crisps, some fruit, a slice of cake or two and voilà! (or should that be vol-au-vents!) You’ve gone and got yourself a picnic.

But that tradition of eating a selection of snacks while plonked on a blanket in a park or on a beach - and occasionally forcing yourself to enjoy the experience - is not something originally invented for everyone to enjoy.

Aristocrats eating outdoors

The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of the picnic in Britain. Basically, if you weren’t somebody out hunting, you didn’t get a picnic, as it was food brought out to the huntsmen while they were on horseback. It even features on the Bayeaux Tapestry. But if you had told those hunters to expect a picnic, they would have stared at you with blank faces. The word didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. It’s French in origin and dates back to 1692 as ‘pique-nique’.

Even so, a pique-nique didn’t involve shivering in a sudden breeze while chomping on a fish paste sandwich. The term described a social event, usually held indoors, where guests would each turn up with a contribution for the meal ahead, either an entire course, a dish or a monetary contribution.

Another explanation for the name is based on Pique-Nique, a character in a 17th century French satire who guzzles away regardless, at a time when his peers endured food shortages.

The French Revolution was a key part in the picnic coming to Britain. With many members of the aristocracy fleeing for their lives, the Isles were a handily placed retreat. In setting up a new life, it was logical that some customs would filter through into British society and the pique-nique was one of them. It was a group of French settlers who started London’s Pic Nic Society in 1801, a mixture of dining and amateur theatrics, where each member was required to bring along a dish and six bottles of wine.

Queen Elizabeth I at a ‘picnic’ for the aristocracy in the 16th century.

Child of the Revolution

The French Revolution was a key part in the picnic coming to Britain. With many members of the aristocracy fleeing for their lives, the Isles were a handily placed retreat. In setting up a new life, it was logical that some customs would filter through into British society and the pique-nique was one of them. It was a group of French settlers who started London’s Pic Nic Society in 1801, a mixture of dining and amateur theatrics, where each member was required to bring along a dish and six bottles of wine.

A hunt luncheon picnic as depicted in an 18th century painting (after a work by Carle Vanloo).

With society having a fine old time at their indoor picnics, the middle classes wanted a slice of the action too. Instead of recreating the very expensive indoor version of a picnic, somewhere along the line (it remains unclear exactly how or why), an outdoor version was created, with an emphasis on eating in the countryside to enjoy the rural atmosphere. Although these couldn't be more different than the goings-on at the Pic Nic Society, the word ‘picnic’ was borrowed to describe these outdoor events - and stuck, outliving its source of inspiration.

In the 19th century, a picnic was one of the biggest treats in the social calendar. Although they couldn’t always be planned due to the quirks of the British weather, it became very fashionable for the upper classes to take elements of their dining routine outside, with cookery books listing the essentials to make every picnic successful. The acclaimed journalist and lifestyle writer Mrs Isabella Beeton, whose Book of Household Management is still in print today, had a picnic list including four roast fowl and two roast duck in her menu. It also became very fashionable to show up at the season’s big society events, such as Ascot and Glyndebourne, with a picnic hamper in tow. However, the indoor picnic was still more popular than the one enjoyed outdoors.

A picnic at Royal Ascot in 1992.

Al fresco eating for all

For a long time, picnics were seen as a status symbol and not something the working classes could aspire to. But over time, trains became more accessible and bikes and cars made getting about easier, taking a picnic out to a favourite spot became a lot more achievable. Furthermore, the notion of sitting outside in comfortable weather to enjoy a bit of potato salad and ginger beer seemed a safe and socially acceptable way of enjoying the summer as a family or group of friends.

In the post World War II era, the arrival of supermarkets, cheaper convenience food and plastic and paper crockery which would survive a bumpy journey down to a preferred little nook meant the majority of the population could take advantage of a sunny day and whip up a spur of the moment hamper of treats.

Taking a basket of food to an outdoor spot is now a summer tradition regardless of class.

It’s now unusual to find a public space which doesn’t include at least one picnic table and it’s become fashionable to have a wicker hamper tucked away beneath the bed which has all the crockery, cutlery and storage needed to take a veritable feast along with you for the day.

The contents of our picnics may have changed to suit our lifestyles. Where Mrs Beeton recommended a feast involving roast fowl, we’re now more likely to have celery dipped in hummus or a massive bag of crisps and some warm pop but the concept of the picnic remains the same. And to think it took a revolution to bring it to our shores.

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